For all of the additive manufacturing technologies that we’ve seen to date, most - if not all - have focused on creating hard objects using any number of materials ranging from plastics to metals and food items to ceramics.
Now, a team of researchers at Disney Research and Carnegie Mellon University have developed a 3D printer that layers together sheets of laser cut fabric to create three-dimensional objects using STL files similar to traditional 3D printers. Already, the team has used the new technology to create everything from stuffed animals and doll clothing to even smartphone cases. The technology even allows for the patterns to have circuitry incorporated into the final designs in the case that an electrical function is desired such as lights or sounds.
"Today's 3D printers can easily create custom metal, plastic, and rubber objects," said Jim McCann, associate research scientist at Disney Research Pittsburgh. "But soft fabric objects, like plush toys, are still fabricated by hand. Layered fabric printing is one possible method to automate the production of this class of objects."
The Disney Research network is a collection of research laboratories that support technological developments for The Walt Disney Company. Among other purposes, the network pursues scientific and technological innovation to advance the company’s various media and entertainment efforts. Previous breakthroughs by Disney Research have found their way into everything from amusement park experiences to toys.
The printer developed by McCann and his team - which also includes Huaishu Peng, a Ph.D. student in information science at Cornell University, and Scott Hudson and Jen Mankoff, both faculty members in Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute - is similar to other existing 3D printers on the market in the context that it works with individual thin layers that become bonded together to create a larger three-dimensional object. Unlike traditional 3D printers however, the fabric 3D printer integrates a material subtraction (laser cutting) process in addition to a material addition (additive manufacturing) process. These are presented in the design as an upper platform (for cutting) and a lower platform (for bonding).
To produce an object fabric is fed from a roll into the device while a vacuum holds the fabric against the upper cutting platform. Once the material is secure, a laser cutting head cuts out the shapes based on the file requirements. Once the cutting is complete, the bonding platform is raised up to the fabric and the fabric is released from the vacuum. The platform is then lowered and the bonding process begins by coating the fabric layers with a heat-sensitive adhesive and then pressing them together with both heat and pressure. Once the process is complete, the surrounding “support fabric” is discarded and the final, intended 3D object is left behind.
Among other demonstrations, the team used the technique to create a 2.5-inch bunny using 32 layers of 2-millimeter-thick felt. In total, the process of creating the nearly 3-inch tall soft 3D print took about 2.5 hours. Researchers also discovered that they can change the stiffness of an object by adding interior cuts to each layer that affect the bend properties.
"The layers in the bunny print are evident because the bunny is relatively small compared to the felt we used to print it," McCann said. "It's a trade-off -- with thinner fabric, or a larger bunny, the layers would be less noticeable, but the printing time would increase."
The printer will be presented this weekend at the Association for Computing Machinery's annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2015, April 18-23 in Seoul, South Korea.